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“Heedlessly Controversial” — Remembering Oscar Levant

Reviewing Sony Classical’s invaluable new Oscar Levant tribute in the current “Los Angeles Review of Books,” I write: “That Levant was what he seemed was doubtless a key to his appeal. His authenticity has never appeared more exceptional: no present-day mainstream media personality – not even our President -- is as heedlessly controversial as was Levant every time he opened his mouth.”  I also remark that Levant – who as pianist, movie star, radio and TV personality embodied an American cultural moment one lifetime ago -- inhabited “a … [Read more...]

A Vital New Book about Music and Race

Dale Cockrell's "Everybody's Doin' It: Sex, Music, and Dance in in New York 1840-1917" is a book that will bring to wider attention the scholarship of one of America's most original music historians -- someone whose work fearlessly challenges conventional wisdom. It was my pleasure to review this new Norton release in this weekend's "Wall Street Journal": On his first trip to New York, in 1835, Davy Crockett discovered in the drinking cellars of the Five Points “such fiddling and dancing nobody ever saw before in this world. I thought they … [Read more...]

Re-Thinking Aaron Copland

How did Aaron Copland’s film music attempt to counteract the Hollywood influence of Erich Korngold? To what degree did he draw inspiration from the master Mexican populist Silvestre Revueltas? How did the Red Scare change Copland’s style in the 1950s? These were some of the questions tackled by “Copland’s America,” this summer’s festival-within-a-festival at North Carolina’s impressive Brevard Music Festival. So far as I can tell, Brevard is unique. It manages to combine the focused intellectual exploration that Leon Botstein has long … [Read more...]

Ferruccio Busoni: “A Fresh Gust of Air”

Preparing an August 15 Busoni/Schoenberg/Kandinsky program for The Phillips Collection in DC, I discovered myself newly entranced by one of the most magical figures in the history of Western music. Around the same time, Kirill Gerstein's revelatory new CD of the Busoni Piano Concerto turned up -- and I felt impelled to take stock. I wound up writing 4,500 words: On the first anniversary of the death of Ferruccio Busoni, in 1925, his former pupil Kurt Weill wrote: “I will never forget the feeling of relief which we experienced when, in … [Read more...]

A Fidelio for Yesterday

Faced with a twelve-hour drive, with wife and dog, from Manhattan to the idyllic Brevard (North Carolina) Music Festival, I threw some CDs in the car. I chose Fidelio because I had been eager to re-experience Beethoven’s opera since encountering David Lang’s Fidelio-for-today, A Prisoner of State, premiered by the New York Philharmonic as a season finale concert opera. This minimalist distillation ignited a standing ovation. But I wanted to go back to the real thing. The Fidelio I own is the famous 1962 EMI recording, conducted by Otto … [Read more...]

Who Was the American Bartok?

Who was the American Bartok? The most plausible candidate, I would say, is Arthur Farwell (1872-1952), who led the “Indianists” movement in American music beginning around 1900. Here is a sampling – his “Pawnee Horses” for 16-part a cappella chorus, sung in Navajo. Farwell's Pawnee Horses Farwell is one of the most fascinating figures in the history of American classical music. His life-long quest was for the “unGerman” – a musical idiom as capacious and indigenous as Walt Whitman’s free verse was to American literature. … [Read more...]

Whitman and Music: A Fresh Discovery

It’s said that Walt Whitman has been set to music more than any other poet save Shakespeare. Oddly, the most memorable of these settings may be by an Englishman: Frederic Delius’s Sea Drift (1904) and Songs of Farewell (1930). There are also notably affecting Whitman settings by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Kurt Weill. What about settings by American-born composers? An unlikely candidate may be the best of the bunch. It’s a 1944 radio play, just revived by PostClassical Ensemble at the Washington National Cathedral thanks to the invaluable … [Read more...]

Why “Porgy and Bess” Is More than a “Period Piece”

However popular it may be, Porgy and Bess remains an object of rampant controversy and confusion. An odd item in the New York Times the other day reported that the white cast of the Hungarian State Opera’s Porgy and Bess (above) had been instructed to declare themselves “African-Americans.” “The singers were asked to sign a declaration stating that ‘African-American origins and spirit form an inseparable part’ of their identity.” Commenting on the Gershwin Estate’s insistence that Porgy and Bess be cast with black singers, Szilveszter … [Read more...]

Music from Paradise

Claude Debussy wrote: “But my poor friend! Do you remember the Javanese music, able to express every shade of meaning, even unmentionable shades which make our tonic and dominant seem like ghosts? . . . Their school consists of the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, and a thousand other tiny noises . . . that force one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.” Debussy heard a Javanese gamelan at the Paris Exposition of 1889 – an epiphany. Another such … [Read more...]

Mark Twain, Charles Ives, and Race

In the current issue the quarterly review Raritan, I write that Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 2 “are twin American cultural landmarks, comparable in method and achievement.”  They both transform a hallowed Old World genre – the novel, the symphony -- through recourse to New World vernacular speech. To read the whole piece, click here. It bears mentioning that Ives and Mark Twain knew one another via the Reverend Joseph Twitchell. Twitchell was for forty years Samuel Clemens’s closest … [Read more...]

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